The king is dead, long live the king!!

I take my title today from a common exhortation upon the death of a monarch in a hereditary monarchy. It is a saying whose meaning is two-fold … it both speaks to the passing of an old leader, but also to the continuity of the institution of monarch. “The kings is dead, long live the king” pays tribute to the king who is passing, but also recognizes that there is always a king, and that the title merely passes from one hand to another.

In Alberta’s world of one party democracy, we had just such a moment this past weekend. The long, drawn-out political ‘death’ of Ralph Klein finally came to an end with the coronation of his successor, Ed Stelmach, at the Alberta Progressive Conservative Party leadership convention this past weekend. Going into the convention, Stelmach was given little real chance of winning, and even going into this past weekend’s 2nd ballot, Stelmach was a committed third place, and no serious commentators really discussed the scenario where he ended up winning, except as one of the ‘unlikely’ scenarios. The only real question going into the weekend was whether Jim Dinning, or Ted Morton, would be able to bring enough support to the party, and possibly which of the two Stelmach would throw his support to when the time was right.

When the dust all cleared Sunday morning, with “Steady Eddie” as the last man standing, there was a lot confusion, especially amongst commentators who mis-called the race and underestimated Stelmach throughout the race. There’s a rush to try and explain how Stelmach managed to come from behind and take out the two front-runners … the Calgary Sun today painted it as anti-Calgary bias after 14 years of Klein at the helm, and they may be right in some small way. There was a large run on party memberships for the final ballot, and as interviews with voters indicated, many people treated this not simply as vote for the PC party leadership, but the de-facto election for Premiere of Alberta. More than just an election to choose the head of a party, a PC Leadership convention in Alberta truly is a coronation of a leader, and general elections serve more as a referendum on issues, and a re-affirmation of the rule of the monarch, and I think Albertans recognized that this time around, and in Morton and Dinning, saw people they didn’t want to crown. In Stelmach, they saw their next-door neighbour, or the guy from the next farm over … someone who looks very much like themselves.

Had this been simply a PC leadership convention, I’m not sure Ed could have won. In a situation where the PC party was simply choosing its next leader, I expect Morton and Dinning would have duked it out till the end … its hard to say who would have won, but I am fairly certain Ed wouldn’t even have been in the running. Instead, Ed came through because of the non-PC members who came out and bought memberships to vote for their next Premiere … in many ways, I think the leadership convention was hi-jacked to a degree, but given the political situation in Alberta, I think its a legitimate hi-jacking given that the general elections don’t really provide legitimate choice, and given that no rules or laws exist to prevent or discourage it.

In the end, I think Stelmach wasn’t really elected in a PC leadership race … he was elected Premiere of Alberta through a fairly broad mandate. It will certainly be interesting to see what happens in the next general election, but the reality is that the outcome of general elections in Alberta are nearly always predicted in advance, almost down to the riding-by-riding level, and neither opposition party really provides any credible competition to the PC’s on a provincial level. There is no precedent in Alberta history really for a general election surprise, we need to remember that while the Stelmach win was more dramatic, Ralph was also the underdog back in 1992 going into the second ballot against the front-runner Nancy Betowski, so Ed’s come from behind surprise ending certainly isn’t all that unusual for PC leadership elections.

Stelmach seems a very reasonable man who thinks deeply about issues. As I write this, I am watching his first press briefing on CBC Newsworld, and it strikes me that while he is not the natural public speaker that Ralph Klein was, or that perhaps Stephen Harper is, Ed Stelmach thinks deeply and forces his listeners to engage him in more complex ideas. He may not be the polished public speaker we are used to seeing in politics, but it was very heartening to hear him speak about being a listener … if there is one thing that would make the world a better place in very short order, it would be more thoughtful listeners in politics, IMO anyway.

Congratulations and good luck in a difficult job to Ed Stelmach … as Ed said Saturday night at his acceptance speech, “Good guys do finish first.”

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